Today, for the fourth week in a row, our Gospel reading comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
The fact that our Sunday lectionary spends so much time on these teachings is a clue to how important they are.
This sermon is Jesus’ first recorded public teaching. In a sense it can be thought of as his inaugural address.
In our day, inaugural addresses lay out a leader’s vision for the country. They lay out the values, the principles which the leader embraces, the direction in which he hopes to move the country.
That is exactly what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters of Matthew’s gospel contain the core of Jesus’ teachings, laying out a blueprint for how to live a Christian life, one that helps bring about the kingdom of God.
When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he is talking about an utterly different way of relating to human society than we usually think about, says theologian Richard Rohr.
Jesus was talking about a new world order, but not in the way politicians use the term.
“I doubt that any major political leader would align a new world order in terms of cooperation, trust, service, and redemptive suffering,” Rohr says. “For all of politicians’ talk of a new world order, they really mean simply the old world order.”
What Jesus describes is anything but a continuation of the old.
In the portion of the sermon we heard today, Jesus takes “business as usual,” and turns it on its head, showing his followers that there is another way to live.
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” Jesus says.
Of course, that is a well known verse from the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament. In fact, our president says it’s his favorite Bible verse, citing it as an example of what we need to do, in his eyes, to make our country great again.
But to look at the concept of “an eye for an eye” as a divine approval of vengeance is to misunderstand its intent. “An eye for an eye” was, in fact, a way of setting limits on punishments or vengeance. A better reading would be only an eye for an eye, or in other words, the punishment must fit the crime.
Jesus challenges his followers to extend the limits of vengeance even more.
“I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you, and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”
And if a Roman soldier forces you to carry his armor for a mile, as he legally could do, carry it two miles instead.
Jesus is calling his followers to totally subvert the system of retaliation, to give unheard of responses to injustice. Retaliation and violence are not part of God’s kingdom.
“Jesus is saying, ‘Don’t get into the tit for tat game,’” Rohr says. “Create your own loving set of rules, which will blow the system apart. You take the initiative and change the rules, the expectations, and the outcome.”
Jesus’ instructions get even more difficult.
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The command to love your enemies may be Jesus’ most radical and demanding teaching.
“If we only love our neighbors, if we only stay with people like us, war and racism continue,” Rohr says.
“The key is always to love the stranger at the gate. Love the one outside your comfort zone, the outsider, the other.”
What would our country be like if all of us who identify ourselves as Christians truly tried to follow Jesus’ blueprint for a Christian life?
Perhaps the closest we’ve come to seeing what Jesus is talking about lived out by a community is in the Civil Rights era.
One of the lesser known heroes of that movement is the Rev. James Lawson, whose introduction to nonviolence came at the age of 10. Lawson was running down Main Street on a beautiful spring day when a passing child shouted a racial slur at him.
He responded by smacking the child in the face.
When Lawson got home, he proudly told him mother what had happened.
“She turned to me and quietly said something I’ll never forget,” Lawson writes. “’Jimmy, what good did that do?”
“Her next sentence I also remember very clearly,” he adds. “’There must be a better way.’”
“It was a sanctification,” Lawson writes, “ a conversion of spirit for me at that early age. I heard something very deep inside me saying, ‘you will never again use your fists in anger. You will never again strike back in that fashion.’
“From that moment, I was conscientiously launched on a journey of discovering a better way – which, I came to realize, was the way of the love of Jesus.”
Lawson took that better way to heart. He went to prison rather than serving in the military in Korea. When he was released, he went to India and studied the nonviolent ways of Gandhi.
He came back to this country and entered divinity school at Vanderbilt, where he also began to train black college students in the ways of passive resistance. He stressed that this was not acquiescing to evil or violence, it was instead a powerful form of resistance.
And it was a way of life, he told the students who trained with him before going to lunch counter sit ins and other demonstrations, where they were spit upon, pushed and shoved, hit, and yelled at.
“This is not simply a technique or a tactic or a strategy or a tool to be pulled out when needed. It is not something you turn on or off like a faucet,” one of his students, John Lewis, now a member of Congress from Atlanta, wrote.
“This sense of love, this sense of peace, the capacity for compassion, is something you carry inside yourself every waking minute of the day.
“It shapes your response to a curt cashier in the grocery store or to a driver cutting you off in traffic just as surely as it keeps you from striking back at a state trooper who might be kicking you in the ribs because you dared to march in protest against an oppressive government,” he says.
“If you want to create an open society, your means of doing so must be consistent with the society you want to create. Means and ends are absolutely inseparable. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. Anger begets anger every minute of the day, in the smallest of moments as well as the largest.”
These are the ethical and moral requirements of our faith. These gospel demands are serious, radical, and sometimes costly.
But for Jesus, and for those who profess to follow him, they are not to be compromised, not to be carried out only when convenient and ignored when things get tough.
We hope we are never called to test our obedience to these demands in situations of danger, like the heroes of the Civil Rights movement.
But we are called to live them every day, in the smallest of moments as well as the largest. That is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.